Backwards and forwards.
As we continue our exploration of how to use punctuation in the narrative description of a screenplay, don’t forget the example we’re looking using. It’s from the first page of Shane Black’s 2005 directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang:
The girl starts to SCREAM.
SHRIEKING. Writhing in agony. Tears streaming. Harold stares dumbly. The kid with the saw, horrified –
Chaos. ADULTS converge on the scene. The girl is twitching. In shock, her DAD leaps to the stage. Grips the lid, HEAVES OPEN THE BOX. Eyes wide, staring –
Exclamation points are often used in a script. An exclamation point indicates the notion that something is of major significance. It’s can also indicate surprise or strong feelings.
Surprise, strong feelings, new and significant visual information are all excellent things to have in a screenplay. It is a natural writing instinct to want to indicate these moments with exclamations points. But you have to be careful…
The danger with exclamation points is overuse.
In dialogue, an exclamation point implies emphasis on an idea or a strong emotional response underlying a character’s line. This can be used to great effect. But if overused, the dialogue will start to feel like everyone is shouting at each other.
In the narrative description the more surprise and intensity you can pack into your script, the more exciting it will be to the reader. You want to save your exclamation points for when they really count. For when something really matters.
If you use too many exclamation points, they will lose their value. If everything is so significant that it requires being called out, then nothing you call out will be of any unique value.
The opposite of exclamation points, question marks are seldom used in stage directions. As the writer, you’re trying to convince your readers to create a specific visual image in their minds’ eyes.
A question mark expresses doubt or uncertainty about something. It takes control of the ideas and images in your script and leaves them up to the reader.
If what you’re trying to establish in that moment is that a character is having a moment of doubt or uncertainty, using a question mark might be acceptable. Otherwise, you want your images to be as concrete, clear and easy to comprehend as you can make them.
Dots and Dashes
Three dots ( “…” ) are called an “ellipsis.” An ellipsis is used when as a result of the context words aren’t necessary to communicate an idea.
In dialogue, there are several ways to use an ellipsis. Fundamentally, an ellipsis implies the interjection of silence or “space” in the conversation.
An ellipsis can be used to communicate that a character’s words are already known to the listener because of their shared history, experience or knowledge.
An ellipsis can be used is to indicate that a character can’t find the words that he or she is trying to say. It can imply that the character is leaving a sentence unfinished while he or she wracks their brain to find the right words.
In narrative description, an ellipsis represents a momentary pause in the flow of the action. It’s an interjection of time, suggesting that the image on screen be held to create tension. It implies that whatever comes next is interjected smoothly or slowly into what is being seen.
A dash, usually two ( “ – “ ) implies an abrupt interruption.
In dialogue, a dash implies that someone has been cut off or abruptly finished speaking.
When writing a scene where characters are cutting each other off in rapid succession, you want to use dashes not ellipses.
In narrative description, a dash implies the same: whatever is happening on screen is abruptly stopped or a new idea is juxtaposed against what we’re told is happening at the moment.
Next week, we’ll look at more ways to create emphasis, express emotion and generate tension in your description using caps, italics and underlines. We’ll also talk about fragment sentences and when it’s okay to break the rules.
So keep reading, and keep writing!